I’ve always struggled with reading “historical” literature — basically, anything that takes place before the 20th century.
And while I have friends who consume copious amounts of Victorian literature, Chaucer and Old English translations, I think plenty of people feel the same as I do. It’s just not as common to see someone leisure-reading “The Canterbury Tales” on the bus as, say, “Harry Potter” or “The Great Gatsby.” There’s something disorienting and tedious about trying to even parse the grammar of older literature, and while reading “Beowulf” for class, I felt a little nauseous every time I tried to visualize a place where everybody had swords and nobody had tetanus shots.
So why read older books? For the sake of history?
I decided to take this up with my GSI, who, as an Anglo-Saxonist, has decided to dedicate her life to studying and reading ancient English literature. In hindsight, I don’t know what I expected, but when I confronted my GSI with my question during her office hours, she just looked a bit miffed and said:
“Well, I mean, they’re only as dead as we’re going to be.”
Which, I guess, is an admirably cavalier and concise response that allows for multitudes of interpretations. “They’re only as dead as we’re going to be” could mean really anything, for example:
1. We are going to die.
1A. And if the human race survives for another millenium, some people may feel the same way about “Infinite Jest” as I do about “Beowulf.” Hopefully, by 3015, science and society will have continued to progress, and so future generations may be living in some sort of ultra-advanced, warless utopia. To them, the state of affairs in 2015 will seem inconceivably backward. They will discuss our massive carbon footprint as they lounge around in mid-air, on eco-friendly jet packs.
So we can either accept that, to them, “Infinite Jest” will be just as weird and boring as “Beowulf” is to some of us, or we can embrace “Beowulf” in hopes that the future generations will be just as generous and will continue to venerate “Infinite Jest.
2. We are going to die, and they are already dead.
2A. So we’re actually on pretty even footing here! The difference between the past and the present is actually negligible, because the people of the past are also people, and so their experiences should be in some way relatable. This shared humanity is the essential core of literature, and so the differences between “us” and “them” are actually insignificant in terms of evaluating their literature.
3. She’s going to kill me because I don’t like Old English literature.
3A. I slept uneasily that night.
While the advice was a little vague, my GSI had a solid point — especially if we refer back to interpretation 2A, which I think rings especially true. Though you can read old books for their historical value, old literature and contemporary literature set out to do essentially the same thing — they both try to tell stories that appeal to some essentially human experience — and so details like historical period shouldn’t present a barrier to accessing the kernel of relatability couched in the plot.
Take, for example, “Game of Thrones.” Much in the same way that we may see the events and historical period of “Beowulf” as archaic, the plot and historical period of “Game of Thrones” is also archaic — yet somehow, we find a way to relate to the characters despite the lack of resemblance between their world and ours. And if this lack of resemblance doesn’t construct a barrier between us that’s so huge it makes their story entirely unrelatable, then I don’t see how such a barrier would exist between us and the characters of “Beowulf.”
And so historical literature doesn’t have to be relegated to historical times — the books written in the past don’t have to be books of the past. As weird as it sounds, “they’re only as dead as we’re going to be” is absolutely right, and establishing this connection between us and the people of the past breaks down the divide of time and makes old literature accessible.